Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Not the Brightest Animals: Book Review of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris

If you think fables are for children or that fables are wholesome, or that fables are dead, read Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris and you may change your mind. Comprised of twelve short stories, each featuring animals of different species interacting with each other, this hilarious, quirky book made me think about what probably would have happened if Sedaris had worked for Disney: when Thumper tried to teach Bambi to skate, bones would have broken; when Tramp shared spaghetti with Lady in the moonlight, food probably got everywhere.

Like these Disney characters, Sedaris’s animal characters enjoy simple pleasures that come with the kinds of relationships we humans experience. It is not clear if Sedaris’s animals have learned from human behaviour and socializing, or if coincidentally animals just think like us and communicate like us. The latter seems more likely as humans are largely absent from Squirrel.

Characters in Squirrel that forget or ignore the harsh truths of nature meet their demise morbidly at the end of some stories. Nature’s karma, I suppose. Sedaris’s fables highlight the triviality of the animal characters’ human-like problems: the destruction caused by a pet snake, the conversation parents must have with their children about where babies come from (appropriately by parent storks to a baby stork). Sedaris seems to be saying that these issues, among others, are not really issues, and that they seem to distract us from what’s really important, like watching your baby instead of meditating when there is a crow around (especially if you are a sheep, as Sedaris cautions).

Or maybe Sedaris is just using animals to make fun of humans. There is so much to make fun of. The front cover drawing of the squirrel romancing the chipmunk by candlelight says it all, although I’m wondering where the miniature wine glasses and candle came from.

The animals also over-think or take personally simple realities like impending death by a farmer’s hand. Squirrel is loaded with dramatic irony. What’s so morbid about some of these characters’ demise is not so much the gruesomeness, but that we, the audience, know what will happen, or have a good idea that something bad will happen, yet it delights us. Well, it delights me anyway…

Sexism plays a role too. There’s the chauvinistic rooster in the hen house, of course.

And racism? Yes, there is the Vietnamese potbellied pig who, like generations of his family before him, was born and raised in an unspecified country, presumably America, but was questioned by a parrot in his interview for a job at a museum about how his ethnicity would play a role in his work: “Can we expect to see more Oriental art?” the ignorant parrot asks, among other things. The pig kind of says yes to these questions in an apparent effort to appease the interviewer. When he starts to say something else, the parrot cuts him off, saying, “That’s all I wanted to know.”

Our lives and so many of our issues seem that much more stupid and senseless with animals playing our parts. Sedaris has found great humour in these pathetic attitudes and situations. He often shares these quirky stories with deadpan style, in calm and concise prose, perhaps to emulate the desensitized, ignorant comments, reactions and discussions that so many people make about race, sex, death, etc.

Squirrel reminded me that the truth hurts, but at least it can also make me laugh.

Oh, and the illustrations, by Ian Falconer, are bizarre and hilarious. One picture on the first page of every story. My favourite is a drawing of an owl behind a hippo. The animals are in black and white, except for the hippo’s orange anus and the owl’s orange eyes. In this story there is also a gerbil who wants to “try new food, visit exotic places.” This story and picture made me feel like sticking a tiddly wink up my nose as a child wasn’t such a big deal after all.



12 comments :

  1. This sounds like a really great read!

    Jane

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  2. Great review! I bought this book a couple of months ago and it's great. My husband and I actually read it out loud and laugh hysterically. Thanks for commenting on my blog--I'm glad it brought me to yours.

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  3. I heard about this on NPR awhile back. Definitely right up my alley. Glad you liked it! I'll nudge it a little higher on the list.

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  4. Jane - Yes, it was. Check it out! Thanks for your comment.

    Lauren - Welcome! Thanks for your compliments. This is a great book to read aloud and I'm glad you shared a laugh with hubby!

    Vicki - I found this book at HMV actually. When you read it, let me know what you think! Thanks for stopping by.

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  5. Hi! I found you because you are one of my newest followers! Thank you! Loved your review of this book. I LOVE David Sedaris and can't wait to read this one! I love his sense of humor and his books are definitely "laugh out loud" reading!

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  6. I'm always looking for new books and authors to read. I'll have to check this one out. Sounds like it's really got you thinking!

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  7. He's definitely a hilarious genius, that guy. He combines humor with literary beauty.

    Me want to be like that some day.

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  8. This sounds like the perfect book club read. It's my turn to chose next month and I'm looking for something funny and different. I bet the discussion after would be interesting too. Thanks. So glad to have found your blog...it's terrific. :)

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  9. Becky - Welcome to my blog! Hey, thanks for reciprocating! Thanks for your compliment. I'm glad you're so excited to read this!

    Jules - Welcome to my blog! I'm flattered that my review influenced your reading choices! Thank you. You'll have ot come back and let me know what you thought of it, please! I would love that.

    JUST ME - Welcome to my blog! Yeah, he does seem to be so literary and funny. The book wouldn't have been as effective and funny if he wasn't so literary.

    Laura - Welcome to my blog! Wow, yes a book club! Fun enough just to read aloud some parts of this. And there's so much to discuss! Thanks for your compliment!

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  10. Well this book sounds delightful. I'm ashamed to admit I've read Sedaris but everyone tells me I need to.

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  11. I love David Sedaris! I will have to look for this book, I didn't even know it existed, I thought I had read all of his books. :)

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  12. Christopher - I assume you meant you haven't read Sedaris? Don't be ashamed, just go for it and enjoy! Thanks.

    Princess - How delightful that I introduced you to a book by an author you love! Now read it and enjoy! Thanks.

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